It was August of 1973, and Tony Glenn, a recent graduate of Conrad High School, had earned a treasured spot in the annual Blue-Gold All-Star high school football game.
The contest had been a summer staple since 1956, matching the First State's top recent graduates in a North vs. South format. The 56th annual game was played Saturday night at Delaware Stadium.
Two prominent Wilmington-area sportsmen, Jim Williams and Bob Carpenter, started the game to raise money for what were then termed "mentally retarded" children. Each was the father of such a child.
Glenn's mother, Rose, had reminded her son, "This is more than just about you," in reference to that cause as he headed to the two-week camp leading to the game at the University of Delaware.
"I didn't pay much attention to that," Glenn confessed recently.
But, one day at practice, Glenn came to understand the Blue-Gold game's meaning in a way he didn't foresee. It would permanently shape him, as he would begin a lifelong association with the game. He has spent the past 10 years as executive director of the Delaware Foundation Reaching Citizens with Cognitive Disabilities (DFRC), which operates the game. DFRC funds programs that aid those citizens.
Glenn's enlightenment occurred on a practice field on the stadium's southern edge, where the Bob Carpenter Center now sits.
"The coaches called us over on the field one day and said there were going to be some school buses coming down from the Mary Campbell Center, and some retarded kids are going to be getting off the bus," Glenn recalled. "Back then, it was appropriate to use the word 'retarded.' I remember when the coach told us that, I just froze."
Glenn's fear was typical. He hadn't spent time around anyone who fit that description.
"All of a sudden, those buses pull up, and my knees start to shake," he said. "Sure enough, the first kids getting off the bus and running up to me have Down syndrome, and now I'm just petrified because, again, it's just ignorance, it's not knowing and not being around it.
"So then, all of a sudden, the kid takes my helmet and starts running. Another kid comes over, and I spend 15 minutes running around playing tackle football with three or four kids. Then I turn around, and they're getting on the bus, and the kid's taking my helmet with him. So it forces me back over to the bus, which is great. I get a chance to get the helmet and give the kid a hug and all that kind of stuff."
By that time, Glenn had been transformed.
"I'm walking away from the bus, and I'm thinking I was ashamed of myself because I was so afraid," he said. "Then I remember the buses leaving, and I just said, 'What's the difference?' We just had a great time, and something inside of me stirred.
"The next year, I came here to [the University of] Delaware to play football, and I joined the [Blue-Gold] committee right away."
Eventually, he would become the game's anointed leader because some felt he was the only one who could save DFRC from possible extinction.
For his dedication to the Blue-Gold cause, Glenn is among The News Journal's 50 Who Matter, a biweekly series spotlighting Delawareans who usually work quietly behind the scenes to improve others' lives.
A lasting impact
In much the way Glenn was initially touched, the Blue-Gold game has impacted thousands of Delawareans over the years, especially since the advent of its Hand-in-Hand Program in 1974.
It matches football players, cheerleaders, band members and school ambassadors with a cognitively disabled "buddy" for various activities.
And on this Father's Day, Glenn once again can share the Blue-Gold experience with his sons.
Several years ago, Ryan Glenn, now a UD student working in football operations, served as an ambassador for the game. This year, Justin Glenn is a Blue lineman out of A.I. du Pont.
Blue-Gold involvement is second nature to Justin Glenn, but he has enjoyed watching his teammates come to understand the game's deeper meaning, too.
"They're a little skeptical at first," he said. "They didn't know what was going to come out of it when we first started in January. Once they met their buddy, they sort of had their bond and started to love their buddy and became good friends with their buddy. It's awesome to watch."
To Tony Glenn, that's the whole idea. It was hatched by others, then proudly embraced by him to the extent that it became his life's work and his daily passion.
"It all goes back to people caring about people, that we're all connected, believe it or not," Glenn said this week while watching the Blue team practice. "It's important because of the tradition of this game, but also because you're picking some of the finest high school leadership, not just players, but your cheerleaders, your ambassadors, which are your school leaders, and your band. All these kids have to be recommended, and it's an opportunity to display our young leadership in the state. From that standpoint, it's very important because the tradition continues, and now you have almost 10,000 alumni.
"If you've been in Delaware a while, you're touched by this, you can't escape this. ... It's part of the fabric of the state. So from that standpoint, it's huge. But it's the teaching that goes on that makes it important."
Glenn went on to play center for coach Tubby Raymond's Blue Hens, was a longtime volunteer assistant coach on his UD staff and taught at St. Mark's High School for 18 years. But every summer, he was involved in the Blue-Gold game, which moved from August to June in 1983.
Initially, it was selling T-shirts and tickets and working as an athletic trainer. In 1984, Glenn was camp director, athletic chairman and assistant coach. He was game chairman, the person who oversees all aspects of the event itself, in 1988.
In 1991, he was elected to the board of trustees, a year after promising Carpenter, just before the game's co-founder died, that he would devote his life to Blue-Gold.
Ten years later, after Glenn had attained a doctorate at Wilmington University with a dissertation on DFRC and Blue-Gold, he was named executive director.
At the time, DFRC was an all-volunteer organization suffering from a lack of leadership, said Jodi Keller, a longtime board member who is now its vice president. It had briefly experimented, unsuccessfully, with having a paid executive director several years before.
She and others on the board felt DFRC not only needed full-time leadership, but it had to be from Glenn because of his unrivaled passion for its mission.
"We were actually thinking that maybe we should throw in the towel," said Keller, whose son Wes, now 18, had been a "buddy" in the game. "But we met at my house and said, 'We can't let DFRC fold.' "
The board saw Glenn as DFRC's lifeline. Glenn put considerable thought and prayer into the board's offer to become DFRC executive director before accepting, he said, over other, more lucrative opportunities.
"He understood. He was raised with the DFRC," Keller said. "He had all the experience, all the tools.
"When he took over, it was just like this spark. He's so emotional, and he cares so deeply, and that's exactly what we needed."
Keller has watched in awe, she said, as Glenn has spoken to students about disability awareness. The Glenn she knows is often "smiling ear-to-ear," she said, "with so much passion pouring out of his pores."
In its first 46 years, DFRC raised $3.4 million. In the past 10, it has raised an additional $2.2 million.
In accepting the offer to take over, Glenn remembered his promise to Carpenter.
"DFRC needed someone who understood the family," said Glenn, who passes the credit to its army of volunteers and participants.
St. Elizabeth High School football coach Joe Hemphill, who has directed the game's training camp since the 1980s, said Blue-Gold "got to be too big not to have someone in a leadership role. 'It's not just a football game,' as they say. There are a lot of things to do and an awful lot of volunteers and people involved. Tony's done a fantastic job of pulling that all together and keeping it organized and staying on top of things."
Seven annual fundraising events fill the DFRC agenda, with an auction, three golf tournaments, a 5K run and the "Hollidazzle" fashion show joining the football game.
"It's his life," Hemphill said about Glenn. "He's made Blue-Gold his life, and that's what you have to have."
DFRC provides grants to large groups as well as for something as small as a local stable's horseback-riding program for autistic kids or as simple as the mother of a disabled child needing a specially equipped van.
"Our mission is to raise the money for everybody," said Glenn, who often collaborates with other groups in that quest. "I don't like raising money, so if we do the right thing, the money will come if we honor the process."
'We're all learning' After Glenn became executive director, DFRC dropped the long-standing slogan that was so closely associated with the game: "We Play That They May Learn."
It last appeared on posters, T-shirts, advertisements and other game-related material in 2001.
"Guess what? We're all learning," Glenn said. "When I was doing the research for my doctorate, I found that [Blue-Gold involvement] shows significant change in the high school participants who supposedly don't have the intellectual disability. Their whole life changes. Their whole attitude changes significantly.
"[With the slogan], it was almost like we were saying, 'Aren't we glad that we showed up to help you?' And the bottom line is, now, as soon as I give, I receive. I believe that's why we're here. No matter what we do, all of us are called to give of ourselves. That's the reward we get back, so if you're giving of yourself, you're receiving. That's a truth."
Glenn knows all that from personal experience, gained first on a 1973 practice field and repeated frequently since.
He came out of that initial Blue-Gold meeting with the children whom the game benefits knowing, "We were just people," he said. "It didn't matter what people looked like. We just wanted to have a good time."
Glenn termed that realization "sacred," and his faith in the Blue-Gold game, its cause and effect, have been devout ever since.
He is glad to sing its praises, and Glenn does with all his seemingly limitless energy.
"We're just providing an opportunity for people to come together and learn from each other," Glenn said. "It's an enlightenment of just really caring about each other, and, in that caring and in that giving, we're receiving. Then, everybody's lifted. That's why DFRC's so important."